When the Philadelphia Flyers went to the podium for the second time in the first round on Friday night at the NHL Draft, there were quite a few highly-touted prospects still available. There were even a couple projected-lottery picks on the board. But the Flyers didn’t abide by the consensus rankings. Ron Hextall chose to show faith in his scouting department and go “off the board” so to speak by drafting a projected second-round pick.
The Flyers selected Jay O’Brien with the 19th overall pick on Friday night. O’Brien, a high school standout that was named the Player of the Year, had some knocks against him for not playing against tough competition in the CHL or similar. However, over the past few years the scouting staff has been finding gems and Hextall has undoubtedly built up the confidence in them. In fact, Hextall had Assistant General Manager and Director of Player Personnel Chris Pryor announce the pick in what was possibly a symbolic gesture.
O’Brien certainly wasn’t on the minds of many fans watching the draft, or even many of the media outlets, but the Flyers trusted their scouts and took a chance on the high school star. They could have played it safe with a bigger name, but that’s not what Hextall wanted to do.
“I’ve never been one to be safe,” Hextall said. “I don’t think it’s a good philosophy, I don’t think you can be successful that way, so if we believe in something we do it. We believed in picking Jay O’Brien higher than most people thought he should go and we feel good about it.”
O’Brien had 43 goals and 37 assists for 80 points in just 30 games with Thayer Academy, a program that has produced NHL players like Tony Amonte (their current head coach), Jeremy Roenick, Charlie Coyle and others. He might not have been playing against the toughest competition, but those are impressive numbers nonetheless.
“People call [O’Brien] a risky pick because he hasn’t played at a high level and quite honestly, it’s a tough evaluation, there’s no doubt about it. I feel confident. Our scouts do a great job and we felt really strong about him.”
Outside of the numbers, the Flyers did their homework on O’Brien. They made sure they saw him play and conducted interviews with the prospect.
They scouted O’Brien “a bunch,” the newest Flyer said. “I know Hextall and their head guys came and watched me a good amount. I had an unbelievable interview with them and built a pretty good connection so I couldn’t be happier.”
O’Brien noted that he had “just a little bit of a different connection” with the Flyers, and mentioned that they had been among the teams that scouted him the most, if not the team that scouted him the most.
“I had a great meeting with Philly. It was the place I wanted to go and it was the place I wanted to play,” O’Brien said. “Such a historic franchise. I couldn’t be happier to be a Flyer.”
Hextall had high praise for his fresh draft pick as well.
He’s a really smart player, really good hockey sense. He’s competitive, he’s strong, he’s got a little agitator in him. He’s got a really good shot and sees the ice well. He’s a really good hockey player. He’s a little bit undersized but we think he’s going to be a fit kid and a strong kid. We really liked him. His energy, he’s a really good molder.
Hextall said that while the Flyers were looking to get a defenseman, they simply went after the best player available in the first round.
When we’re looking in the first round, we want hockey players. We want guys with hockey sense. We also want character. We want good hockey players. If you don’t draft them in the first round it’s hard to find them so, philosophically, that’s the way we approach things. Forwards and ‘D’ it depends on how our list falls and that’s the way our list fell.
Going off the board to take a center in the second half of the first round might cause Hextall and the Flyers to receive some flack, but they shouldn’t. They did the exact same thing last year with Morgan Frost. Many thought that the Flyers could have taken Frost later, or that they should have taken someone else. Now Frost is one of the best players in the OHL and could make the jump to the NHL this season.
Having that prospect depth may have allowed Hextall to take a bit of a riskier pick here with O’Brien. While he doesn’t call it risky per se, and he said that their depth wouldn’t have an impact on their selections, getting a safe forward with a strong chance of becoming an NHL player in Joel Farabee could have loosened things up a bit for the O’Brien pick.
O’Brien still has a few years to go to become NHL ready. He has the raw skills and hockey sense, but he’ll need to prove himself against tough competition and fine-tune his game. He’ll head to Providence College this fall to play his collegiate hockey.
While O’Brien didn’t play against the highest level of competition all year long, he had a good showing in the top prospects game. He scored a goal and played a strong all-around game against some of the top draft prospects.
O’Brien was ranked as highly as 24th by HockeyProspect.com, and was consistently in the 30s or 40s on five other prospect rankings.
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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